Karin Alin was one of the most prominent Swedish translators of Italian, Spanish and French works during the 1900s.
Karin Alin was born in Västerås in 1892. Her father was a lieutenant and the large family comprised seven daughters and two sons. After gaining her school-leaving certificate in 1915 Karin Alin began to work as trainee teacher, initially in Strängnäs and then in Uppsala. At the same time she also attended Uppsala university. In 1929 she gained her Bachelor’s degree in English, German, and Romance languages. Shortly afterwards she began further studies in the Romance languages under the guidance of Professor Ernst G. Wahlgren at Uppsala university. She gained top marks for her licentiate in Spanish in 1931, for Italian and the Provençale language in 1933, and for ancient French in 1934.
Karin Alin worked at the advanced teacher-training programme in Stockholm between 1932 and 1943, whilst also setting up her own business as translator and literary agent. She appears to have lived alone and not to have had any children. According to accounts she was a retiring and reserved individual, but her extensive correspondence emphasises the impression that she was a strong-willed and industrious career woman who often struggled with self-absorbed writers, suspicious fellow translators, and tough publishers. One of her biggest rivals was her contemporary, Karin de Laval, who also ran an agency focusing mainly on Italian literature.
In 1951 Karin Alin took early retirement following several years of ‘heart problems’ (as she put it) which had left her unable to work. Her translation work really took off once she retired, although her very first translation, Vår tids tema written by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, dates from 1936. Karin Alin translated in total about three or four works every year from the 1940s onwards until her death in 1974. Her translation work spanned a range of languages including English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, and Norwegian. Over time Karin Alin tended to focus mainly on the Romance languages, and within these largely on Spanish and Italian.
Karin Alin’s translations included works by Nobel-prize holders François Mauriac, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as other major names such as Edward Morgan Foster, Federico García Lorca, and Italo Calvino. She introduced Calvino to Swedish readership in 1956 by translating one of his short stories and presenting his writings in Bonniers Litterära Magasin. Her correspondence with various Swedish publishers also reveals that she spent many years trying to convince them to publish Calvino, and she was finally successful in getting Albert Bonnier publishers to take on her translation of Klätterbaronen and publishing it in 1959. Klätterbaronen is the most frequently published title by Calvino in Sweden and it is always Karin Alin’s translation that is used.
During the 1940s and 1950s Karin Alin mainly translated Italian works, but from the mid-1960s onwards she increasingly began to translate from Spanish. There are several different explanations for this. One was the decline in the neo-realistic joy of the narrator in Italian prose during the 1960s and its replacement by a harsh demand for more experimental narration, which had an inhibitory impact on many novelists. During the 1960s it became increasingly difficult to find Italian authors who were internationally accessible. A more concrete reason was that Karin Alin, who also worked as a literary agent, was being systematically counteracted by her Italian-language colleague Erich Linder. Linder, today a legendary agent, was unsettled by her influence on the dissemination of Italian literature in Scandinavia, particularly within the Nobel prize homeland of Sweden. The tone of the correspondence between Linder and Karin Alin is often overtly hostile. Linder blatantly states, on several occasions, that he wants as little to do with her as is possible. In one letter from 1958 he finally informs her that he has taken on a new agent for the entire Scandinavian market, namely Peter Janson-Smith. However, Karin Alin’s greater focus on Spanish-language literature actually worked greatly in her favour, not least in her translation of the Nobel-prize holder Gabriel García Márquez’ major novel Hundra år av ensamhet.
Karin Alin’s translation output was productive and successful. She translated about 150 titles for the Swedish book market and for the theatre. This high output was usually of good quality and she was awarded the major Swedish translation prizes during her lifetime. Reviewers usually made positive comments on Karin Alin’s translations, albeit the odd reviewer ventured to criticise her preference for highly creative word combinations. Perhaps the fact that several of her translations are still being printed today is an indication of the lasting quality of her work.
Karin Alin died in Stockholm in 1974.